When Dr. Chavone Momon-Nelson’s daughter was younger, she took her out for a celebration of sorts. The OB-GYN bought herself and her daughter matching bracelets and gifted her a decorative box filled with various period supplies. Over the years, Momon-Nelson had discussed menstruation with her daughter, backing off when she seemed uncomfortable. Still, she wanted her daughter to be prepared when her period arrived.
“I took her out on a date because I said, ‘Let’s do it away from home,’ and we went to a movie, and we went out to eat, and I gave her an opportunity to ask questions, and I shared some more information. I continued to build upon this expanding conversation we’ve had since she was a little girl,” Momon-Neslon tells TODAY.com. “I said when the time comes, we have this box here … with all of the things you will potentially need.”
When her daughter finally got her first period, she came to Momon-Nelson with questions about the various products in the box and the changes she experienced.
“When it happened, we had all the tools,” she says. “It was very helpful. It took a lot of stress off the situation, and I feel that she was less embarrassed when it finally happened.”
Florida bill could ban discussion of periods before grade 6
Many parents feel uncertain when to bring up menstruation to their children, Momon-Nelson says, adding that conversations about periods should be ongoing and start earlier than they might think.
Florida's House of Representatives is considering legislation that would ban discussion of periods in schools before grade 6, along with other topics related to human sexuality and sexual health, NBC Miami reported. The bill's sponsor, Republican Rep. Stan McClain, said its intent is to make sex education more uniform in Florida's 67 school districts and make it easier for parents to object to what young children are being taught if they find it inappropriate.
McClain confirmed that girls who start menstruating prior to 6th grade would not be allowed to discuss it in school but said the goal of the legislation is not to target young girls, per NBC Miami.
“Banning the discussion on something that is normal and natural that happens to a young woman can negatively impact (her),” Momon-Nelson says. She wonders if children might not be able to find books about puberty or visit the nurse to ask for period products. And it could lead to some feeling embarrassed, she says.
“Talking about periods should not be a bad or stigmatized or taboo thing,” Dr. Rula Kanj tells TODAY.com, calling the potential ban a "restriction on talking about what’s normal biologically. It’s very disappointing.”
Rep. McClain's office did not immediately respond to TODAY.com's request for comment.
Kanj and Momon-Nelson share how they talk to their children about menstruation.
Identify body parts by their name
Kanj is already teaching her 4-year-old daughter the proper name of her body parts, such as vagina or vulva.
“She’s learning the name of body parts, and she’s known them since she was 2 because I want her to understand the different parts of her body and be able to tell me if something is different or something is bothering her,” Kanj, director of pediatric and adolescent gynecology at Northwell Health, says. “If they know the body parts that early, when they’re little kids, it’s just a normalized thing that leads us more easily to talking about periods or puberty.”
“It starts with really and truthfully calling the female genitalia what it is and even calling a period what it is and not giving it nicknames,” she says. “Don’t call it 'the pocketbook' or 'Aunt Flo.' Call it what it is when they are little, then build upon that conversation.”
Try to discuss menstruation in neutral terms
Some people consider their periods a curse or talk about it as dirty or embarrassing. The experts recommend taking a biological approach to discussing it.
“Periods, they’re not something to be ashamed or embarrassed about. Menstrual blood isn’t dirty. It’s not your body’s way of clearing out toxins,” Kanj says. “It’s just the lining of the uterus being shed.”
Momon-Nelson says she felt inspired to have a girls’ day with her daughter to mark the milestone as a positive instead of a curse.
“The focus of the narrative needs to change to express really the special milestone in a young woman’s life and that is not a bad thing,” she says. “It’s not something to be embarrassed about or shameful about, but it’s almost like a welcome, congratulations you have stepped into a new chapter of your life.”
Ask for help if you don’t have the answers
Kanj and Momon-Nelson recommend parents find books to help them and their children learn more. American Girl has a two-volume set called “The Care & Keeping of You” that both doctors say they like. Momon-Nelson gave it to her daughter, now 17, and encouraged her to read the book at her convenience and ask questions when she had them.
“I remember when my daughter had told me that one of her classmates had her period, and I remember asking her, 'So what does that mean?'” Momon-Nelson says. “She understood it but she said, 'I went back and looked at my book.’”
Parents can also ask their child’s doctor how to approach the topic, too. Both Momon-Nelson and Kanj say that they often ask to speak to their patients alone to answer questions they might have but feel uncomfortable asking with their parents in the room.
“I start having one-on-one conversations with the kids and that's part of my regular care,” Kanj says. “Sometimes I’ve had kids say, ‘Nothing is going on. I’m not dating or anything like that.’ And I say, ‘OK, are there other questions or things you want to ask me before we bring your parents back in?’”
That’s when patients might mention a change they've noticed, such as a discharge or painful cycles. More often, though, it helps her build trust with her patients so that Kanj can answer questions accurately when they have them.
Foster an open-door policy
When Kanj’s step-daughter got her period, she approached Kanj, who explained how to use a tampon. She understood that Kanj wanted to help her.
“It’s good for parents to check in,” she says. “They can be like, ‘How do you feel?’ and, ‘If there are any questions you have, you can ask me. I’m here we can figure it out together. Don’t be embarrassed.’”
She says often children feel embarrassed because they’re not sure what is normal or not. That’s why parents need to start conversations.
“None of us have all the answers or can predict the exact appropriate timeline to ask our kids about things,” she says. “I know that having a communicative relationship where they encourage kids to tell them what’s on their mind, what they’re curious about and listening non-judgmentally … can pay off.”
Talk about what’s normal
Sometimes people experience heavy bleeding, intense pain during menstruation or stop getting their periods. These changes can be signs of endometriosis, fibroids or polycystic ovarian syndrome. Sharing factual, judgment free information about periods means children and teens understand when something’s wrong and feel comfortable discussing it.
“Reducing the stigma around periods means we can talk about normal and abnormal period, meaning ... bleeding through menstrual products, sometimes through their clothes, if they have severe pain or are curled up in bed and they have other really bad symptoms,” Kanj says. “We have treatments for those things. They don’t have to suffer. It’s not just part of being a girl or a woman.”